Twenty year’s after Ayrton Senna’s death, we remember his special affinity with one of Formula 1’s most challenging tracks: the tight and unforgiving street circuit of Monte Carlo.

Each year, the Monaco Grand Prix brings back memories of Ayrton Senna. The legendary Brazilian won 35 grands prix and three World Championships with McLaren, but it’s his victories on the streets of Monte Carlo that stand out.

Ayrton won this classic race a record six times (including once with Lotus in 1987). It could have been seven, but for a character-building mistake during his first season with McLaren.

His arrival at McLaren in 1988 coincided with the creation of the MP4/4, arguably the most successful Formula 1 car ever. Senna had the added incentive of wanting to prove himself against double World Champion Alain Prost, his new team-mate. When Prost made his bid for what looked like being his fourth pole position at Monaco, Senna annihilated it. 

‘Alain had got down to a 1m 26.9s,’ recalls Neil Oatley, Prost’s engineer. ‘Ayrton produced a 1m 24.4s. Alain improved to a 1m 25.4s, but then Ayrton did a 1m 23.9s. I remember a kind of ghostly look came over Alain’s face – he just couldn’t understand how or where Ayrton’s time had come from.’

Senna would later describe his experience of that qualifying session to journalist Gerald Donaldson: ‘I suddenly realized that I was no longer driving the car consciously,’ he said. ‘I was kind of driving it by instinct, only I was in a different dimension. It was like I was in a tunnel, not only the tunnel under the hotel, but the whole circuit for me was a tunnel.’

In the race, a bad start by Prost allowed Senna to open a substantial lead of 49 seconds as the race went into the final quarter. Then Ayrton made a small but crucial error when he put a front wheel a few centimetres out of line and clipped a barrier on the inside of the corner where the track returns to the waterfront. The lapse in concentration may have been negligible but the consequences were immense as Senna climbed from the damaged car. Furious with himself and unable to speak to anyone for hours afterwards, Ayrton vowed never to make the same mistake again.

It was part of a relentless learning process as Senna examined his driving and his car in minute detail in order to extract the absolute maximum from both. But when it came to Monaco, Senna’s unshakable self-belief allowed him to find yet another level of speed that took him closer to the walls and kerbs than anyone else. Even when speed was not the critical factor, Senna could switch his mental acuity to a different zone, as he proved at Monaco in 1989. 

‘Ayrton was leading Alain by a reasonable distance when he lost first and second gears,’ recalls Oatley. ‘Rather than back off to look after the gearbox, he was actually trying to make sure his lap times did not suggest he had a problem. He was driving every lap like a qualifying lap while partly crippled by having two gears missing – which, at Monaco, is a big problem. He felt that if he backed off, it would have inspired Alain to start pushing. It worked – and he won.’

He would win again for the following four years, defining his specialist Monaco skill by not always having the best car. In 1992, Nigel Mansell had won the previous five races in his Williams. A late pit stop at Monaco cost him the lead but, despite fresh tyres and a faster car, Mansell could not find a way past the tenacious Brazilian during the highly dramatic closing laps.

Such wins against the odds simply added to the Senna legend.

Maurice Hamilton is the author of new McLaren book, Ayrton Senna – McLaren, published by Blink Publishing


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